Thursday, May 17, 2012

Drop City - T.C Boyle - A glimpse of a lost generation

Hippie - The word brings to mind a lot of images, many of them not flattering. In India too the word has mostly a negative meaning, even though India was one of the major points of the East meets West scenario that was happening in those days (for e.g. Beatles interacting with Ravishankar, their spiritual journeys through India etc). I daresay, R.D. Burman's excellent 'Dum Maro Dum' and it's picturization has had a great impact on the general mindset. The common opinion one has of this culture is of free love, promiscuity, drugs, some new age spiritual mumbo-jumbo, in short a bunch of layabouts doing nothing except enjoying themselves. On the other side, the hippies  saw themselves as some kind of counter revolutionaries, rebelling against the oppressive/consumerist society and the wars that were raging during that period. What is the truth actually? As in all cases, it would like somewhere in between. This hippie period and it's culture is the focus of T.C Boyle's novel 'Drop City'.

The story revolves mostly around the inhabitants of  Hippie commune 'Drop City' in California. They try to keep themselves out of the 'straight' society as they call those who are integrated into the normal social fabric, but are forced to leave the commune as the Government takes over it. Meanwhile parallel to this narrative is another one where a young woman wanting to live as close to nature as possible marries a person in remote Alaska who himself is living in the mountains. In a way both the hippies and the young couple are similar in that both shun the modern life and want to back to their roots as it were. The head of the commune has inherited a land in Alaska (close to where the couple live) from his uncle and so the commune heads off to Alaska to make a new start. The rest of the novel is about happens there, their integration in a new place and the disruption it causes.

Boyle has made sure that the hippies are not caricatures and gives a balanced view of things. Yes, there are deadbeats, bums who just want to get high and be stoned always. But what were they before that? Boyle shows just a glimpse here through 'Star', a (so-called)normal middle class person, a teacher no less, living with her parents, whom one just cannot associate with the hippies, but one who was actually bottling up her feeling to such an extent that it had burst out one day and she gave up everything. In a few strokes, Boyle passes on to us the claustrophobia that a lot of us feel in our daily lives, just that most don't act on it, but some like Star do. The following paragraph shows us how Star felt hemmed in her home.
"When she got home at night she balled up her pantyhose in her own petite-sized pantsuits, flung them on the floor in her room and lay stretched out on the floor with a speaker pressed to each ear, staring at the flecks and whorls of the thrice-painted ceiling while Janis Joplin flapped and soared over the thunderous changes of 'Ball and China' "
Boyle has always been great in capturing the 'everyman' a person who is neither well integrated into society and nor given it up fully, always caught between the pull of the social normal and of the dangerous but more exciting counter culture. Sadly though, this strokes of characterization are few (which I will come to a bit later). Another thing to be noted here is that while the characters may be slackers for working in the society, they are ready to contribute their bit to the commune, whether it is cooking food,  getting stashes of pot, building cabins etc. 

Free love is one of the most quoted aspects of this culture, but Boyle shows that even here women were the ones who were victimized. In the guise of free love, men took advantage of women wherein a man could cohabit with multiple women, even forcing them sometimes for sex, in the name of love, making sure that he got what he wanted irrespective of the woman's choice. There is even a hint of jealousy (in Ronnie's character) when the woman he hooked up with, goes with another man. But again as in the case of characterization, this done in an almost off hand manner, somewhat diluting the impact it could have had.

This is event driven novel than a character driven one. The prose has a kind of somnambulistic quality to it which one could boring at times, but which is perfect when you think of the fact that most of the characters are stoned out of their minds most of the time and you are viewing the events through their eyes, in a glazed manner mostly in slow motion. Boyle has got the tone of the narrative pitch perfect. You always have a sense of foreboding while reading, a disaster just waiting to happen, a darkness hanging over the entire novel, whether it be for the inhabitants of the commune or the young couple at Alaska. In case of the commune it's a feeling that they will self-destruct, whereas in the case of the young couple it is a feeling that nature will finally get the better of them. That's another thing to be mentioned, the prose of the narrative arc of the couple is more clear without none of the hazy feeling. This is again in tune with their living in the wilderness where they have to be up on their toes always and cannot afford to lounge around hazily. Boyle works have always been environmentally conscious  and here also this shows through in the loving way he describes the wilderness, the beauty and treachery it hides and the eternal fight of man to survive in it.

For all the things going for it, the novel ultimately remains an engaging one and does not take the next step where it consumes the reader. I am not saying that it's a bad thing to be only engaging, but there seems to be a lot of potential wasted or rather ignored here. For instance the part of the young couple is hanging outside the main core of the novel. Now, I try to follow Updike's tenet where he said the one should not criticize what the author didn't attempt at all, but only what he has done, but here I think I am justified in doing so. When a narrative arc takes up 30% of the novel and finally does not mesh with the overall structure you get the feeling that it's a wasted part of the novel. When the commune finally makes it way to Alaska, you expect a clash of cultures/ideals between the couple and the commune, one working hard to make a living, the other just wanting to take it easy. Because one thinks that was the point of having the 2 different narrative arcs. But beyond a few sporadic interactions (with an eye on plugging in the novel's end logically) it doesn't happen. You could have taken the part about the couple out and got a separate novella. The part about the hippies alone could have been enough, but I think Boyle wanted a counterpoint to their ideals in the form of the hard working couple, but somehow didn't go through it fully. 

Another peeve I have about the novel is the characterization and I am going to play devil's advocate here. I do not feel that well rounded characters or coherent narratives are an absolute must for great fiction. Great fiction can have well defined plots/characters driving or it can be a narrative tour de force, heck it can just about be anything, how can one quantify it, I can just say what I felt was lacking here. One can read an entire Pynchon novel, come out of it not fully understanding what novel was about and still be consumed by it, one can read 1000 pages of 'Infinite Jest' on just ennui and happiness, with innumerable characters and burn in it's fever. Let's take 2666. Is it a complete novel, can't we treat the 5 parts as separate novellas, doesn't it just have a very thin thread(Archimboldi) running it's entire length and nothing much to link it. But can one come out of 'The part about crimes' without wanting to puke, your senses numbed by the violence after a descent through hell. How does that happen, can we just say that violence in that part was gratuitous and somehow it affected. Noway, this is where the narrative strength plays a part in either totally embracing the reader or just end up giving a hug (as in the case of 'Drop City'). The narrative hums along nicely, but never seems to reach the destination of total gratification. We enjoy the journey but at the end are left a bit dissatisfied. The major outcome of the lack of characterization is that the novel at 440 odd pages seems long at times and becomes sluggish. Because when you do not know about the characters and it's nearly 250 odd pages before the commune starts to Alaska you start to feel the length of the novel. There are not even small hints about the characters (like the para about 'Star' I have given earlier in the post) which the reader can fill in with his imagination. Its not like Boyle can't do it, but I think he has not wanted to do it. There is a 2-3 page portion when the commune is on their road trip to Alaska, where all the women are having a chat. In those pages, Boyle shows a side of them that was not revealed earlier and makes see them in a different light. Alas, this too is too short to make a lasting impact and that's what kills me about the novel. It promises much at several points but always ends up short. So what happens is whatever is mentioned about the characters, is too hazy for the reader to fill up and after a point he just gives up. When 'Pamela' the young lady who chose a husband to live in the wilderness says she is pregnant, you don't fell like 'how is she going to survive in this condition, how will this affect the dynamics of the couple's relationships, will she go back to her place leaving her husband' etc. It just doesn't hit you at all. 

The lack of clarity on the characters does not have a totally negative impact, but indeed has a rather curious one. When certain events happen one does not think about why a character did that, his motives and how another character will be affected by it. Rather we think about it in generic terms. For example if X commits adultery, we do not think about why X did it or how Y is affected by it, rather our thoughts go to the general idea of adultery, it's prevalence in society, the reasons for it etc. This is not a bad thing at all, but in the context of the novel it doesn't help much, especially when your narrative is not strong enough to overcome the lack of characterization. Somehow this has been the case with the works of Boyle that I have read so far in the past 3-4 years. I have enjoyed all his works, but that's it, I have not been driven to read the next Boyle book after completing one. Whenever I come across a Boyle book I pick it up, but there has been no urgency from my end to read his works. Yes, it's a subjective opinion but the peeves I have put forth about this novel may be the reason for it.

Do not be put off by my cribbing about this novel. At the end it made me think of a couple of things. Once was about the hippies in general. Most of them would be in their mid 60's by now. So what happened to them after the party got over in the 70's, did they get assimilated into the 'straight' society that they hated so much, did they get jobs, got married and are now leading a leisurely pensioner's life. Or couldn't they let go of it and remained on the edges of society, a mostly forgotten lot now. Another thought was trying to place the hippie culture in current times in relation to our current lifestyle. The hippie culture being reactionary to wars, pressure of modern life etc would fit in perfectly with our times where in addition to wars, we have 'genocides'(several in the last decade itself) the pressure of modern life has increased manifold from the 60's, but why is there no revival of the movement or any other major counter culture movement.  Maybe the hippies were misguided, slackers but they seem to have some vague concept of peace and love, however misplaced it may have been. But a generation later we seem to be beyond all that, the corporate gurus/swamis of today are playing a major here emphasising on the individual being happy, not feeling bad about whatever happens outside, just remove all traces of guilt about what you do. So people today still use drugs, but do it in the weekend rave party, have fun and on Monday get ready for another round of corporate warfare. The gurus do not solve anything, they just put off the bursting point for some more time but for now all are happy. And if any movement does start, the corporate-media coalition makes sure to block it out, like the 'Occupy' movements. Any book that gives you food for thought and raises uncomfortable questions about yourself is not to be ignored. So if you come across this book give it a try.

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